I used to fear critique. My stomach would get tied up in knots at the thought of someone hating my writing or thinking I had no talent. But after the first few times I let someone else give me feedback, it finally sunk in for me how much faster my writing could improve with the help of other peoples' input.
Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate critique instead of fearing it. To be honest, it's always a little bit hard to read someone's critique the first time through: the ego is easily stung by criticism, even when it's constructive. But I learn so much every time I get feedback from someone, I've gotten better at soothing my bruised ego and applying input. The following advice is based on my personal experience with receiving critique. It isn't comprehensive, and maybe it won't work for everyone, but I think it could be helpful.
Here, then, in no particular order, are my tips for how to get the most out of the critique process.
1. To begin with, ask yourself the hard questions. Do you REALLY want critique? Or do you just want praise? Does the thought of criticism, or of making changes to your work, fill you with dread? Be honest with yourself, and if you realize you just want a pat on the back, show your work to a trusted friend or family member.
2. If you truly want honest feedback about how you can make your work better, find someone you trust to tell you what they really think. Make sure it's someone whose opinion - and writing - you respect. If you don't admire the way someone writes, you won't respect their feedback.
3. Tell your critique partner what you are looking for. Be specific - give them a list. For example: “I would like you to look for plot holes and inconsistencies, and tell me if you think the characters motivations are plausible. I'm NOT looking for spelling or grammar correction right now.” Let them know what kind of input you’re open to. “I would love suggestions on how to fix plot problems” OR, “Please don’t offer suggestions for how I could change things, just tell me when you see a problem and tell me what isn’t working for you as specifically as possible.” Personally, I love suggestions. I disregard a lot of them, but it’s always fascinating to hear what someone else might do with the story. But some authors hate that. Be up front from the very beginning about which camp you fall into. You’ll save yourself and your critique partner a lot of grief.
4. Remember you'll probably make several editing passes, and you can’t fix everything at once. So think carefully before you give your wish list to your reader. If you’re still trying to hammer out your plot, there’s no point fussing over commas on scenes that may or may not make the final cut. Once you're sure you’re not going to change your plot, then you can start working on the details. You might need to do one editing pass for dialogue, and another one for action and transitions. Then of course there will be at least one pass for grammar, punctuation, and word choice. All of these are very different sorts of activities that require different mindsets. So it’s a good idea to choose which one of these you want your critiquer to focus on. Over time, as you get to know more writers and readers, you will discover that some people excel at the nit-picky details, some people excel at finding plot holes, and some excel at polishing prose. Use this knowledge wisely. And if you find someone who is good at all three, marry them or at least bake them lots of cookies.
5. Remember critique isn’t a personal attack. YOU know your work hasn't yet attained perfection. That’s why you’re asking for critique. So there’s no point in taking it personally when your story’s flaws are pointed out to you. Your critique partner is trying to help. And if you disagree with their critique? Well, that just leads us to the next tip:
6. Remember you don’t have to agree with anything anyone says. It’s your piece, and you are free to disregard any and all observations and suggestions that come your way. I always tell people “thanks for the input! I’ll think about what you said.” And then I DO think about what they said, and decide if I agree or disagree. That said, if you are rejecting ALL critique, then perhaps you--or your piece--aren’t really ready for critique after all. If you find yourself saying every potential editor doesn't "get" your story, it could be a sign you aren't actually open to advice of any kind. It's possible a few critique partners won't get it. But if NONE of them get it ... see number 1 on this list.)
7. After you’ve heard or read the critique being offered, it’s a good idea to walk away from it for a little while. How long is up to you--sometimes a few hours to let it all sink in is plenty, other times days or even a week or two is necessary. Put the notes somewhere safe, and give yourself some time to let it all simmer in your brain. If your pride is stung, work on soothing yourself and remind yourself of number 4. Be gentle with yourself. Bring snacks and coffee and a cozy blanket for comfort, if you need to, but DO come back. Most likely you’ll have a clearer head and a less emotional response to feedback when you’ve given yourself some time away.
Writers, what are your favorite tips for getting the most from critique? Let us know in the comments!
Photo courtesy of Stefen Tan via Unsplash
Do you enjoy our free content like blog posts, daily divination, and First Sunday Short Fiction? Consider supporting us on Patreon!